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Pakistani militants build web of Western recruits

Rotella is a Times staff writer.

The Pakistani extremist group suspected in the Mumbai rampage remains a distant shadow for most Americans. But the threat is much nearer than it seems.

For years, Lashkar-e-Taiba has actively recruited Westerners, especially Britons and Americans, serving as a kind of farm team for Islamic militants who have gone on to execute attacks for Al Qaeda, a close ally. The Pakistani network makes its training camps accessible to English speakers, providing crucial skills to an increasingly young and Western-born generation of extremists.

Briton Aabid Khan was one of them. When British police arrested him at Manchester International Airport on his return from Pakistan in June 2006, they found a trove of terrorist propaganda and manuals on his laptop that the trial judge later described as “amongst the largest and most extensive ever discovered.” The haul included maps and videos of potential targets in New York City and Washington.

One video, shot deep in Pakistani extremist turf, shows the then-21-year-old Khan with a grinning young man who says he’s from Los Angeles -- a mysterious figure in a case that apparently illustrates Lashkar’s dangerous reach.

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In August, a court here sentenced Khan to 12 years in prison on charges of possession of articles for use in an act of terrorism and making records useful for terrorism.

As a hub of a cyber-constellation of extremist cells, the Briton organized training expeditions to Pakistan for his confederates, computer-obsessed youths who, whatever their mother tongue, communicated in the fractured English slang of the Internet and hatched plots against their homelands in the West, according to his trial and related prosecutions.

“These camps are ideal for people who speak English,” said Evan Kohlmann, an independent U.S. investigator who was a paid consultant for the prosecution team in the Khan case and was integral to building the case against him.

“Newbie militants can make real contacts. They perceive that Lashkar-e-Taiba . . . are below the radar. They are less likely to attract negative attention. It’s an easier ladder rung to reach. Lashkar is seen as a rung to get to Al Qaeda.”

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Lashkar’s Western-oriented propaganda attracts converts such as David Hicks, an Australian whom the group trained, then provided with a letter of introduction to Al Qaeda in 2000. Hicks ended up meeting Osama bin Laden at an Afghan camp; he complained to Bin Laden about the lack of English-language terrorist manuals and translated such materials before his capture in late 2001, according to his admission in court.

Hicks was released from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, last year after pleading guilty to providing material support for terrorism.

Other Al Qaeda figures who “graduated” from Lashkar camps: the leader of the suicide bombers who killed 52 people in attacks on the London transport system in 2005, and a group convicted of preparing a 2004 truck bomb plot in London.

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Early disaffection

Khan grew up in the large Pakistani immigrant community of the industrial city of Bradford. At age 12, he was already immersed in the rage and gore of extremist websites, according to trial evidence.

Khan helped form a global crew of several dozen young men who met on radical Islamic forums on the Internet. Most have since been arrested. They include two American college students in Atlanta now charged with terrorism, a Toronto man on trial on charges of plotting to attack the Canadian Parliament, and a Moroccan Al Qaeda computer expert convicted last year of ties to bomb plots in London, Copenhagen and Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. A defendant convicted along with Khan was 15 when they first met.

“Aabid Khan was very much the ‘Mr Fix-it’ of the group,” said Karen Jones, a supervising prosecutor of the Crown Prosecution Service Counter Terrorism Division, in a news release after the August verdict. “He preyed on vulnerable young people and turned them into recruits to his cause, using Internet chat to lure them in, then incite them to fight. He arranged their passage to Pakistan for terrorism training, and talked about a ‘worldwide battle.’ ”

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The group spent untold hours spewing hate. “You dont know how much fury i have towards these american dogs,” Khan wrote in an online chat, according to court records.

In 2005, Khan began organizing travel to training camps run by Lashkar-e-Taiba and an allied group, Jaish-e-Muhammad, near the border of the disputed territory of Kashmir. It was easier and safer to connect with the Pakistani groups than the secretive compounds of Al Qaeda’s Arabic-speaking operatives.

Although Lashkar was officially banned in 2002, Khan’s crew was convinced that Pakistani authorities tolerated its anti-India guerrilla campaign and permitted its camps, schools and offices to function, according to trial evidence.

“I was thinking, we should be with LT, due to them . . . fighting against Hindus,” wrote one of the Atlanta students in a communication used as evidence. “So [the Pakistani government] shouldn’t bother us.”

In May 2005, as his confederates squabbled about timing and itineraries, Khan asked an unidentified Pakistani operative for assistance. “I was meaning to ask if you can help arrange for the training of a few brothers from abroad, amongst them are non-pakistan nationals,” he wrote.

Khan and several others spent that summer in Pakistan. He returned for six more months in 2006. Investigators did not pin down details of how many actually were trained and where. But as prosecutors pointed out in court, after his arrest at the airport, Khan’s hands tested positive for explosives residue.

Police found evidence of dark intentions on Khan’s laptop, including notes about reconnaissance for hijacking a bank truck at Manchester airport and encyclopedic material on bomb-making. A glossary for “terrorists” provided translations of terms used in training such as “kill him” and “shoot him.” There was an alleged scouting video of targets in Washington -- the Capitol, the World Bank, a Masonic temple -- shot by the Atlanta college students, footage used as evidence against both Khan and the Moroccan computer expert.

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Los Angeles link?

The search of Khan’s luggage at Manchester airport also turned up a video revealing the apparent Los Angeles angle. A week before his return, Khan and half a dozen friends took a four-day trip into the mountains north of Balakot, a hotbed of Lashkar and Jaish-e-Muhammad activity.

Khan shot video of the trip that was shown in court. It includes images of a Lashkar propaganda poster on a wall in Balakot. Soon two young men appear who were described by Khan in court as students from Karachi. Khan testified that he met the two for the first time on the trip and they all decided to share a taxi into the mountains.

One of the “students” in the video is a short, bespectacled youth in jeans and a blue-and-white-striped shirt. Speaking English with a clear American accent, he identifies himself as “Humayun.” He says he is from Los Angeles. He poses with Khan, smiling. The person holding the camera says, “Where is this terrorist from?”

Prosecutors and defense attorneys questioned Khan about the encounter with Humayun. Prosecutors found it curious that the pair appeared so friendly when they had supposedly just met. Defense attorneys had Khan detail his assertions that there was nothing sinister going on.

Khan insisted in testimony that he and the others on camera were just joking around and that he parted ways with Humayun soon afterward.

“Khan is the kind of a person who looks like a fanatic,” Kohlmann said. “That he would pick up a random American at a taxi stop is hard to believe. This is a guy who was talking about killing Americans. He had concerns about the CIA, the FBI, and he would bring a random American guy with him? That doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

After the video was aired during the trial this summer, British police alerted U.S. counterparts about the mystery American, Kohlmann said. Asked last week, federal authorities in Los Angeles declined to say whether they had opened an investigation to identify the purported Los Angeles resident.

If Khan’s account of a chance encounter is true, Humayun has quite a story to tell. But if he was a knowing associate of an extremist subsequently convicted of terrorism, he could be someone to worry about, Kohlmann said.

“He could be an innocent American tourist who befriends someone who is a fanatically anti-American extremist -- not the safest situation,” Kohlmann said. “They don’t know who he is and what he was doing there.”

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rotella@latimes.com

Times staff writer Scott Glover in Los Angeles contributed to this report.


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